It is a great time to be a musician. No, it’s not the easiest industry to break into nor the highest paying job available, but still, it is a great time to be a musician. Today, it is easier to make and record music than it has ever been in the history of audio recording. Thanks to the ease and accessibility of the internet, you can share your music with everyone through YouTube, podcasts and other streaming services. It only takes a few small tools to open the floodgates of creativity within your mind and capture individuality, emotion and inspiration inside the audio file format of your choosing. In this post, I am going to discuss the essentials of a basic home studio setup.
When talking about a basic home studio setup, I am referring to the least amount of gear it takes to record quality audio from common sources such as guitar, piano, voice, drums, etc. This type of setup should be enough to produce relatively high quality recordings that musicians might use as demos, YouTubers could use to create video content or podcasters could use for their weekly shows. In addition, a good quality, basic home studio should not break the bank. It just takes a few pieces of affordable gear to capture your ideas. So, let’s dive into it!
It really goes without saying: to capture voice recordings or acoustic instruments, a good microphone is a must. That is why every home studio should carry at least one quality microphone. It is amazing how much can be accomplished with just one good microphone. For tips on recording multiple vocalists and drums with minimal microphones, check out our three-part blog “The Minimalist”.
There are also hundreds of tutorials available online that explain how to record drums on one mic, how to record a full band’s live performance on one mic, and so on. Even though there is a wide variety of microphones to choose from, there are many very versatile microphones available that work well for a variety of applications.
The AKG P120 and AKG P220 are good examples of a great, versatile microphone. They are a large-diaphragm true condenser microphone that produces warm and clear sound for vocals, acoustic, guitar, brass instruments and most anything else you need to mic up.
Moreover, if you are only going to have one microphone, you want to be sure that it is durable. The P120 and P220 are built with a rugged design making it perfect for your home studio or even on-stage applications. These are exactly the types of things that make a home studio mic a great choice.
So now, you have a microphone and you have a computer. How do you get the sounds you want to capture from one device and into the other? A recording interface does just that.
An interface, at minimum, acts like a translator. Your microphone picks up one language - but your computer doesn’t speak that language. Therefore, the interface must receive your sound and translate it into a signal that your computer understands.
Some things you will need to look for in a good home studio interface are:
Number of inputs/outputs – if you only have one microphone and one electric instrument (piano, guitar), you probably only need an interface with two inputs. One XLR input for the microphone and one ¼” line-level input for the instrument. A very basic home studio may only need one output to monitor the audio.
Built-in mic preamp with phantom power – unless you have a microphone with a preamplifier (preamp) built in, you will need an interface that has mic preamps. You will also need 'phantom power' (+48V) to allow any condenser mic to work. Typically, microphone signals are too weak to translate accurately through recording devices. Fortunately, most interfaces have microphone preamps and phantom power built into them.
The Soundcraft Notepad-5 is a great option interface for any home studio. Technically, it is a mixer but it comes with a built-in USB audio interface.
It features Soundcraft mic preamps with phantom power as well as line-level instrument inputs. It also works great for mixing small live gigs such as coffee house, living room shows or even podcast shows. This is an invaluable tool for any recording or gigging musician and to top it off it is surprisingly affordable.
One of the most important aspects of recording sound is being able to hear the sound that you are recording. This takes place at every point of the recording process.
You need to be able to hear yourself and your instrument so that you can tell if your volume needs adjusted, tone needs tweaked and to be sure, everything is working properly. Then, towards the end of the process, you need to be able to mix your tracks, apply signal-processing effects and master your song.
You need a great pair of headphones. So, what makes headphones great? Here is what you should be looking for in home studio headphones:
Comfort – Do they fit well and feel comfortable? You will likely be wearing them for several hours at a time so they need to be lightweight and put very little strain on your head and ears. Things like an
adjustable headband and over-ear (not on-ear) pads are essential.
Durability – You will be using these for everything. They need to be built well to endure the hours of use you will be getting out of them. Solid frames and replaceable ear pads and gold-plated cable connections as well as drop test and stress tests ensure that a headphone is built to last.
Drivers – Sound quality is key. Do the drivers have a good bass response? Can you hear the high frequency well? You can do a quick YouTube search for headphone comparisons before purchasing.
Noise Bleed – You need to make sure that while you are recording at home, other background noises don’t bleed through. Especially if you are recording to a metronome or click track. The headphones should contain that sound so that the microphone doesn’t pick it up.
Once you have a great microphone, interface and pair of headphones, you can start making great home recordings and getting the ideas from your head out into the world. Some other things to consider when setting up a basic home studio are:
DAW – you need some kind of computer software to keep track of your recorded tracks. With most DAWs you are able to record, edit, mix, master and add endless effects to your audio recordings. There are even some great DAWs that are free, such as Garage Band (if you have an Apple Mac).
Sound Treatment – Your home wasn’t built with audio reflections in mind. To get good home recordings, ideally, you will need to have a separate room that is closed off from outside noise. If you can’t afford sound treatment foam, you can cover windows and walls with blankets to help reduce audio reflections. It is also a good idea to record vocals in small places like your closet. Some people even record vocals and guitars in small, tiled bathrooms because they like the natural reverberation.
Monitors – You can monitor, mix and master with a good pair of headphones. However, it is not ideal. If you are willing to buy one more piece of gear, powered monitors would be a great investment. JBL’s 3 Series MKII powered monitors are some of the industry’s most popular, affordable home studio monitors.
Microphone Preamplifier – If your interface does not have built in mic preamps, you will need an outboard unit. Some preamps even offer extra features that can improve sound quality and add new effects.
You really can achieve radio-quality recordings with minimal gear inside the comfort of your own home. I highly suggest watching some mixing and mastering tutorials on YouTube as well to help take your tracks to the next level. There are so many resources available to home recording artists, and with the right gear to get you started, you can begin to bring your ideas to life. Also, be sure to visit our Insights blog for more tips and tricks about audio technology, gear and recording.
Is there any other gear that you have found to be essential to a functioning home studio? Share your insights in the comments section.
First published in the HARMAN Insights Blog by Justin Lesperance